Last-Minute Travel Deals Still Exist — If You’re Patient

April 12, 2010 at 9:54 am | Posted in air travel, car rental/hire, consumer travel, cruising, travel and technology, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

last-minute travel dealsVacationers and business travelers alike are booking travel later in the game than ever these days — often a week or less from departure — with the dicey economy accelerating a trend that’s been building for years. This higher demand for last-minute travel, together with the yield management systems used by many of the big players, means rates that are more than ever in flux up until the 11th hour. It also means that “deals” are no longer a sure thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the currently downsized number of flights and rental cars is also tightening unsold inventory? Sadly, all the above ads up to not a lot of breaks for the last-minute travel shopper.

Best Travel Websites for Last-Minute Deals
The good news: All is not lost. Such breaks do still pop up, because the fact remains that vendors with unsold inventory — whether it’s bundled air-hotel packages or individual components — will always need to unload it. What you’ll need is a spot of patience and perseverance — and willingness to spend a fair bit of time online doing comparisons, because that’s where most of the action is these days. And there are certainly myriad choices, including the likes of LastMinuteTravel.com and last-minute sections of familiar sites like TravelZoo, Travelocity, and Kayak. I’ve found particularly good ones are Lastminute.comHotwire.com, and of course Priceline.com where after checking the going rates on other sites you can try submitting (reasonably!) lower bids.

Apart from trolling these various sites, in the case of airfares especially I’d sign up for alerts, both from individual airlines (United tends to have the largest selection, coming out each Monday, but doesn’t email them anymore, so you have to check United.com) and airfare info sites like AirfareWatchdog.com, which blasts out individual and grouped alerts according to airport or route. For car rentals, some companies list last-minute specials, but check out Breezenet.com as well, a comparison site which also features a “Deal of the Week.” And this summer, excess cruise line capacity will pretty likely mean awesome late deals on certain itineraries — especially in the Caribbean.

Twitter Travel Alerts
Finally, as this blog pointed out last year, Twitter has not only been coming on like gangbusters in general but has increasingly caught with airlines, hotels, tour operators, and other vendors as a dandy way to unload late inventory and for consumers to monitor deals by following them. Just a handful of other airlines that tweet news and fare specials include Air France (@Air_France), American (@AAirwaves), British Airways (@BritishAirways), Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific), Continental (@Continental), JetBlue (@JetBlueCheeps), Singapore (@SingaporeAir), Southwest (@Southwest), Spirit (@SpiritAirlines), and United (@UnitedAirlines). You can also keep track of fares on sites like AirefareWatchdog.com (@airfarewatchdog), DealsOnAirfareToday.com (@dealsonairfare), and LowestAirfares.com (@LowestAirfares_).

Example: Type “#travel” into the Twitter search box and you’ll come up with hundreds of same-day results. But say you want to go to Orlando. A recent search for “#Orlando #travel” yielded, among many other items:

  • For $289, a three-night stay for four at Silver Lake Resort, plus two adult day tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios, or Sea World (@SLResortOrlando).
  • News of an upcoming crafts and collectibles show in the quaint nearby town of Mount Dora (@roritravel).
  • A list of top free attractions in the Orlando area (@GotSaga).

Crack your knuckles and get surfing!

photo: iStockPhoto
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Its New Government Finally Inaugurated, Honduras Tourism Claws Back From Crisis By Discounting

January 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Posted in Central America, Honduras, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

Back in July 2009, this blog offered a Honduras tourism primer and predicted that the recently erupted political crisis, in which president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, would blow over. A month ago, we pegged Honduras as a hot destination of 2010. Now, seven months after, as the democratically elected administration of Porfirio Lobo takes office and Zelaya departs Honduras for good, the country’s tourism industry is trying to make up for lost time.

It hasn’t been an easy seven months, of course. As its economy shrank, tourism business was especially hard hit, by some estimates contracting by as much as 40 percent. But the situation had calmed down by late ’09; travel alerts issued by the U.S. State Department and other governments were cancelled in December, and net air service and cruise lines visits were reported up even over 2008 levels. Forecasts now see the economy slightly expanding, with tourism mostly recovering lost gains by around July or August.

Even throughout those unsettling months, tourism development was marching on: a new landmark came in November, when Carnival’s 20-acre, $62 million Mahogany Bay cruise terminal in Roatán opened; it’s a two-berth cruise terminal which can accommodate up to 8,000 passengers daily. A multi-beach resort development project is set to break ground this year on Tela Bay. And the funky, diver-popular island of Roatan has been adding resorts, a golf course, cruise facilities, and condos. Many hotels, resorts, and tour operators are busy trying to lure visitors back with even better deals than usual. For example, most hotels near Copan’s stunning Maya ruins and in the lovely colonial town nearby are offering low season rates of less than $100 a night, and sometimes savings of up to 50 percent, through March 30 (normally their high season). Even La Ceiba’s prestigious Lodge at Pico Bonito is offering four nights for the price of three. Roatan resorts are dangling similar discounts, such as Anthony Key Resort’s “second-guest-50-percent-off” deal for 2010 stays.

Bottom line: Helping Honduras regain its footing can also help your wallet.

More info: www.Honduras.com, LetsGoHonduras.com.

On Mexico’s Hot “Riviera Maya,” Dial It Down a Notch in Tulum

November 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Mexico, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

Running from Cancun some 240 miles down to the Guatemala border, the stretch of coast branded as the “Riviera Maya” has become known for the bopping town of Playa del Carmen, along with a string of big and increasingly upscale resorts north and south of town. All well and good. It’s just that part of the charm of this area for us had always been getting away a bit more from the glitz and development of Cancun. For that, nowadays it helps to head farther south a couple of hours south to Tulum, which you might recognize as the name of the picturesque Maya ruins by the sea but which is also home to Tulum Playa, with a stretch of small beach hotels like the Hotel Zamas, starting at just $100 a night.  Here you’ll find a more laid-back and less pricey beach experience still within easy reach of both Playa and Cancun, along with some spectacular eco-adventures (cenote diving!) and Maya ruins (not just Tulum next door, but Cobá, a half hour inland, and of course the famous likes of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, doable as overnighters or long day trips). More info: RivieraMaya.com.

Great Expectations — and Surprises — in Cornwall

September 28, 2009 at 11:23 am | Posted in Europe, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

Part of the dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle, over the craggy Cornish coast.

Part of the dramatic ruins of Tintagel Castle, on the craggy Cornish coast.

More than a few non-Brits have at least vaguely heard of a place called Cornwall — maybe even that its duke is Prince Charles and its duchess Camilla (née Parker-Bowles), and that it’s in the southwest of England. If they’re really up on this 1,376-square-mile region, they know it’s Celtic in heritage; boasts a dramatically craggy coast; has traditionally been big into fishing and mining (fading in favor of tourism); and is known in the U.K. for its pasties (turnovers filled with meat or other savory or sweet fillings). Oh, and let’s not forget The Pirates of Penzance, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and of course Cornish game hens and clotted cream.

With all that cluttering the back of my mind, I’ve always been curious to learn more about this fabled land. So on my last breeze through Britain, I took several days to satisfy my longstanding curiosity. Darned if it didn’t just about blow me away — and I found that Cornwall offers not just spectacular sight s but prices that often compare favorably to the rest of the country. A handful of highlights:

Fowey Pronounced “foy,” this little town at the mouth of the eponymous estuary has built a nice little tourist business on its charming little streets, churches and architecture dating back to the middle ages, and more recently Daphne du Maurier, whose son still lives in the big old house next to the ferry landing across from town. Stop at one of its little hostelries (or the grand Fowey Hall hotel uphill) for a spot of cream tea.

Tintagel If you’re into King Arthur, Lancelot, et al, you’ve surely heard of this town and more importantly this ruined medieval castle perched on a high, windswept Atlantic headland of Cornwall’s north coast. The town itself is cute if now a bit touristy, but you won’t want to miss the hike (or Range Rover shuttle) out to the coast, where you can walk amid jagged 13th-century ruins of the fortified base of the earls of Cornwall. Centuries of embellishment of Arthurian legend made this part of the saga, but in short, proof there’s simply not that this most congenial spot was host to Ca-me-lot.

Boscastle You’ll want to pair Tintagel with a few hours (or even an overnight) in this singular fishing village just down the coast built along a small, very steep valley leading out to a harbor and more headlands with smashing views. Most of the oldest part of town, all stone walls and slate roofs, is given over to shops (pottery’s big), eateries, and B&B’s; an extra pinch o’ magic, as it were, comes from the local Wiccans, who run a couple of shops and even a museum of witchcraft. On a grimmer note, the village had a heartstopping 15 of fame in August 2004, when a dramatic flash flood washed much of it out to sea; thankfully, all the residents were helicoptered to safety. What’s there now is largely rebuilt, though you’d never know the difference.

The Eden Project Looming like something out of a sci-fi movie, this massive, eight-year-old eco-education project carved out of an old china-clay pit mine includes two huge, bubble-shape biomes, one housing a Mediterranean semi-arid biosphere, the other a steamy tropical one. Pretty impressive.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan Also near St. Austell, in the 1990s, overgrown Victorian-era gardens were unearthed and restored, and today they’re more than 200 acres of living, breathing horticultural history, from the antique greenhouses and formal gardens to the Jurassic-looking “Jungle,” with its own microclimate. Nice cafeteria and shop, too.

Newquay Who knew, Cornwall’s Britain’s surfing capital! And this town’s its epicenter, from Fistral Beach (host to September’s national championships) to a downtown crammed with surfer-oriented (and therefore value-oriented) bars, guesthouses, and shops. Plenty of other “soft adventure” options, too, from ziplines and abseiling (aka rapelling) down cliffs to “coasteering” — fast-moving guided tours of the rocky shorelines and sea caves (you’ll need a wet suit). Don’t forget to pop into the Blue Reef Aquarium and down a memorable meal at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall in nearby Watergate Bay.

There’s a lot more I didn’t have a chance to get to. Not one but two old steam railways. The ancient Pendessis and Bude castles. Visitable clay and tin mines.The offshore castle St. Michael’s Mount. Checking out celeb chef Rick Stein’s eateries in Padstow and St. Merryn. The seaside resort town of Penzance. More that’s not even occurring at the moment. All I can say is, stay tuned for “Cornwall Part 2.”  More info: VisitCornwall.com, Cornwall-Online.com.

Cruise Deals Aplenty This Wave Season, With Both Sizzle & Savings

September 21, 2009 at 10:30 am | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by Marcia Levin

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

These days, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be an ad for a Caribbean cruise.

I’ve followed the cruise industry for many years, but thanks in part to oversupply and in part to the economic crunch, I’ve rarely seen the market so awash in high-quality yet good-value and even frankly cheap cruises, and I believe they’ll never be so readily available again. Whether early booking discounts, steep discounts or no extra cost for third and fourth guests in the same cabin, or last-minute Internet deals, the bargains are out there, and to expect to find even better prices in the future may be downright silly.

Bottom line: this season is pretty much an ideal time to choose to cruise.

Mix all the new cruise ships with their increased passenger capacity into a still shaky economy,  stir in the proliferation of drive-to “home ports” such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Norfolk or Galveston for good measure, and you’ve got the recipe for great seagoing values (case in point: Carnival’s Fantasy is scheduled to start five-, six-, and seven-day itineraries from Charleston as of May 2010.)

Whether you’re after a budget cruise for singles, a luxurious and romantic sailing to exotic ports, the right setting for a family reunion, or a short R&R getaway, there’s an option or three for you. Looking for a long itinerary, a quickie, or a transatlantic crossing? Or how about a theme cruise? A Euro-ship making its North America debut this season, MSC’s Poesia offers theme cruises focusing on everything from poesía (poetry) to cooking to baseball. On a comedy-themed January 30 sailing out of Port Everglades, the packed roster at Poesia’s nightly comedy club will keep ’em in stitches through the Caribbean.

One of the best bargains on the ocean right now is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Sky, on three- and four-day itineraries from the Port of Miami to the Bahamas, with prices as low as $199 per person. The ship underwent refurbishment last spring, updating many public areas and new food stations in its popular Garden Café. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines both offer similar short, affordable sails from several Florida ports.

The weeklong cruise sector is also awash in value (not to mention sought-after — the average length of cruises in 2008 was just over seven days). Most cruise mavens expect Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas to be the most popular new kid in town. She steams into home base Port Everglades in late November with a dance card of alternate Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries and never-before-seen amenities, from a shop selling cupcakes to an onboard water theater, along with the usual crowd-pleasing RC features like rock climbing and flow riding. This one definitely promises something of a sea change, so to speak, in cruising; right now, seven-nighters start at $1,399 per person, based on double occupancy.

Another key new player in the seven-day market is the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, alternating Eastern and Western itineraries out of Port Canaveral from $599. In addition to the fleet’s first comedy club, it will debut the first outdoor laser shows on a North America-based cruise ship, melding the latest in splashy hi-tech with rock music to provide guests some unique and exciting nighttime entertainment.

Meanwhile, the 2,114-passenger Costa Atlantica, from the elegant European Costa Cruises and themed after the films of Federico Fellini, is visiting Port Everglades for the first time this winter, joining sister ship Costa Fortuna on weeklong Eastern and Western itineraries from an eye-popping $399. Another brand-new ship sailing from South Florida waters this season, albeit quite a bit pricier (nine days from $4,598), is Silversea‘s Italian-crewed Silver Spirit, with just 540 passengers; it makes its maiden voyage in January 2010 through the Caribbean, around South America, and up to Los Angeles.

Finally, besides MSC Poesia, a couple of ships will make their U.S. debuts at Port Everglades this winter. Seabourn‘s 450-passenger Odyssey (12 nights from $3,499) and Celebrity‘s Equinox — the one with the lawn on the roof — carrying 2,850 (10 nights from $999).

I trust I’ve made my point: For those who want and need to get away this winter and spring, there’s plenty of both deals and dazzle on the high seas. No matter what your budget, there’s virtually no excuse not to set sail in these next several months.

For Value and Local Flavor, Vacation Rentals Beat the Competition Flat

September 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Posted in consumer travel, lodging, vacation rentals, value in travel | 3 Comments
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by José Balido

Now, I truly do love good hotels. I love beautiful bed-and-breakfasts, intimate inns, ravishing resorts, and hip hostels. I love having a range of services (including housekeeping to clean up after me, God bless ’em), stylish décor, and amenities like really cool bars to hang out in.

But let’s face it: it’s not like there aren’t drawbacks. There’s usually not enough storage space (and when was the last time you saw an actual closeable drawer or cabinet in a hotel bathroom?). On the budget end, there’s never a kitchen and rarely even a mini-bar. When there is a minibar, it’s inevitably overpriced and often doesn’t let you store your own potables easily or sometimes even at all. And unless you’re seriously shelling out, in-room kitchenettes can often turn out to be exercises in frustration. All the above goes pretty much double, of course, if you’re traveling en famille.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

I’ve found that if you’re not too hung up on the daily maid service, renting an apartment or house or villa can deliver a good deal more lodging for your money, and for families it can be an absolute godsend, with more room to spread out and to prepare meals or even just snacks. And even apart from the added value, I’ve usually found that these rentals put you right into the community in a way that more conventional by-the-night digs rarely do. It can provide real insight into how locals live — whether you’re talking about Paris, Sausalito, or Buenos Aires.

I remember, to cite but one colorful example, renting a flat in downtown Prague, on the fairytale-beautiful street known as Havelská (no relation to ex-prez Václav Havel). By day, the arcades and the street in front of our 600-year-old building hosted an outdoor green market as popular with locals as with tourists, and we’d meet neighbors coming up and down the stairs with their shopping all the time. Late at night, when the area cleared out, the street and adjacent Coal Market Square turned into, er, another kind of market — never dangerous, but it was certainly a trip and a half to note the wide (in some cases literally) variety of ladies of the evening that strutted their stuff. Bittersweet, too, how coming back from clubbing in the wee hours, the only ladies left standing were Gypsy grannies (seriously!) who’d not yet discovered the wonders of upper-lip depilation.

OK, maybe that wasn’t exactly the best example for families. But it still shows the kind of insight you can gain into local societies — an advantage that most hotels, offering a very tourist-oriented experience, rarely offer. And as short-term rentals and rental agencies become more and more common in more and more destinations, it’s easier than ever to live more like a local when you travel. A Google search will produce any number of outfits renting apartments all around the world, such as the Apartment Rental Service Worldwide. Give it a try on your next trip!

Honduras Offers High-Quality, Affordable Travel Thrills

July 2, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Posted in Central America, Honduras, value in travel | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Copán, one of the world's great archeological sites

Copán, one of the world's great archeological sites

It’s not often that the tiny Central American country of Honduras steals its way onto the outside world’s front pages. But most of the turmoil surrounding the June 28 ouster of overreaching president Manuel Zelaya seems to be roiling more outside the country than inside, in places like Caracas, Managua, and even Washington DC. Most Hondurans, by contrast, seem relieved by recent events, and it’s been largely business as usual within the country, including its growing tourism industry. In my opinion, this will likely remain the case whatever happens, whether the new government stays in control or there’s a negotiated return for Zelaya.

But I’m not here to talk politics — my brief is more about what Honduras has to offer to the vacationer. And as I discovered firsthand not long ago, while still poor and rough around the edges, this country delivers riches in terms of ecotourism, beaches, and ancient history.

You’ll fly into political capital Tegucigalpa or business capital San Pedro Sula, but unless you desperately need a semblance of a dining and nightlife scene (in which case you should be visiting another country), there’s little point sticking around in either of these rather dumpy burgs.

Many head instead to the Caribbean’s Bay of Islands, where tiny Roatán and even tinier Utila have been moving beyond just the diving and fishing types that used to consider them their golden little secret. Lately, they’ve been attracting ever more sun-, sand-, and surf-seekers not into the overbearing resorts and duty-free shopping malls of the commercialized Caribbean. That’s not to say there aren’t a handful of medium-size resorts, and even several fairly upscale complexes, but by and large that barefoot feel of yore is still alive and well out here.

Meanwhile, over on the coast, the city of La Ceiba serves as the anchor for soft adventure (totally kick-ass river rafting on my last visit) and eco-lodges. Heading north, the Tela coast has been adding some resorts of its own. But its most fascinating feature is without a doubt the villages of the Garinagu (a.k.a. the Garifunas), a unique culture and people born of the intermarriage of Caribs, Arawaks, and African immigrants.

Honduras’ jewel in the crown, though, for me is and will always be majestic Copán, one of the great cities of the Maya civilization dating that had its heyday between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D. Its exotic stelae, statues, ballcourt, and soaring temples conjure up a connection to the distant past that can feel positively mystical. Alongside the ruins you’ll also find a postcard colonial town with sloping cobblestone lanes and charming restaurants and hotels.

Now, much of the above is also on offer elsewhere — for example, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. But if you’re looking for bargains, you’re more likely to snag them in Honduras. At least outside the grittier cities, it’s pretty safe, the price is right, and the payoff undeniable. So at a time when you might be asking yourself whether you can afford an adventure like this, Honduras is adamantly worth a look.

For more info, check out Tripatini’s Honduras group.

In 2009, Travel Doesn’t Have to Suffer If Value Is King

May 16, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Posted in value in travel | Leave a comment
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suitcase with sale tag

Travel vendors are hot to lure you into hitting the road this summer.

Well, it sure seems everybody is cutting back these days — even “capitalist tool” Forbes has drydocked the Highlander, we hear. And with all the worrisome things going on in times like these, leisure travel may seem like a frivolous luxury. But it doesn’t have to be; at go-lo we’re firmly convinced that most people overpay for their vacations. Unless you’re truly in the poorhouse, judicious choices can keep rejuvenating, mind-expanding vacations within your reach. That’s what we’re all about here — travelers, travel writers, and travel insiders all teaching and learning from each other on how we can all keep the promise of travel alive and vibrant in these trying times, whether the sustenence we draw from it is spiritual, physical, monetary or any combination thereof. It should be an interesting conversation!

–David Paul Appell

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